I talk a lot about MMOs, and what I see as their slow decline. I really don’t want to give the impression that I’m down on MMOs as a medium, or that I don’t think a lot of the entries into the genre have been great games. I just look at the horizon and see fewer and fewer notable MMOs coming out, and that concerns me. It reminds me of adventure games back in the ’90s, as fewer and fewer with higher and higher budgets would come out and, if not flop, not set the world on fire. It makes for a saturated market and a very Red Ocean effect. Red Ocean is really bad for MMOs, because the advantage lies with the established games. I haven’t seen an MMO push really hard into the Blue Ocean side of things in a long time, and a lot of the rest have followed a pattern: launch, lose a ton of staff after the first month or three, slowly rebuild until you either lose relevance or slowly build back to something stable and growing (usually this takes a year or more).
From the standpoint of someone who wants to see the games industry move forward and be more stable and secure to work in, this is a really bad loop. It means that MMOs lose key staff right at the end of a project, people who (often rightly) assume that there will be big cuts and move on before they happen. It means that turnover is huge, and games lose tons of talented people right after launch, driving up that month-or-three player dropoff statistic. It means that the thing everyone talks about when making an MMO is minimizing risk, because they’re already seen as insanely risky endeavors, so the “safe bet” is to stick close to the experience people expect and make the Red Ocean even redder.
There’s a particular experience you can get right now in an MMO, where you level up your character through a largely static world and get more abilities (to put on your bar) while collecting loot and probably, at the end, raiding some dungeons. It’s a great experience, and I’ve enjoyed it quite a bit. There are a LOT of options for that right now. There’s a notable MMO offering that kind of experience in pretty much every major genre, often multiple times, and they’re still updating and healthy. I know a great many people who are still enjoying that kind of experience, and they’re getting it. I think that’s awesome, and if you want that kind of experience in an MMO, I think you’re spoiled for choice. Many of the ones that have stuck around are quite good, and if you didn’t like one previously, it’s probably worth your time to go back and take another look, years on, because it’s probably been fixed up and updated since then.
There’s an experience that’s faltered in the meantime. It’s been a really long time since I played an MMO that made me feel wary about pushing forward, as fast as possible. I haven’t been lost in an MMO in more than a decade. I haven’t felt like I’ve been exploring for any purpose other than to fill in a map. These worlds carry no secrets anymore, or they’re so rare that only a precious few lucky players get to enjoy them before they’re known by all.
I don’t feel like the kind of game I’m talking about is forever lost. As you may have heard on this week’s podcast, Ash is cynical, and suggests that the rise of datamining and information sites have killed the idea of MMOs with secrets stone dead. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case, it just requires that a development team build their world with secrets and adaptation in mind and not immediately throw up their hands and say “nope, everything we do will be on the internet in a matter of minutes”. I think that it’s possible for a game to continually surprise you and keep you guessing, even if a lot of the variables are known. Our data collection in MMOs is good enough that we could come up with a lot of very interesting procedural content just by plugging in the data streams.
Consider a situation where the mobs you fight in various areas “learn” from how players kill them. As time passes, they change their ability sets and their behavior to better answer the ways players approach them, forcing the playerbase as a whole to change its tactics on a regular basis. It’s somewhat similar to the Diablo escalation, where mobs start getting new and varied “types” that make you change how you approach them, and as I understand it it’s one of the most compelling parts of that game’s replayability. Provided it’s possible to quickly alter your approach to combat (which I think is also important to keeping an MMO fresh), you’d turn a lot of “trash mobs” into legitimate encounters without a lot of overhead. Even if players know every ability a mob COULD have, which ones they’re using at any given time are going to constantly change. You can even tie this to mob types, so you learn to look at mobs and determine how much and how fast they’d learn. I harp a lot on the concept of “trash mobs” vs “encounters”, and I feel like there’s space for a game where the ratio of those two things is a lot more even. There’s very little reason other than a kind of “me too” mentality that you couldn’t run into more interesting encounters on a regular basis.
As another example, you’re probably familiar with “zone sweepers”. They’re the Holly Windstalkers, the Sons of Arugal, and the Fel Reavers of MMOs, big, powerful monsters that severely outclass both the other monsters in the area and the players that are expected to be around. They exist for you to run from, die to, and come back for revenge. It’s a really simple but effective way to break up your otherwise unchanging play loop of “go here, kill things, turn in”, but mostly it does this by frustrating you. I like friction, and I think a certain amount of frustration is good for an MMO experience, but zone sweepers amount to a DM saying “haha, gotcha”. I’d rather these be scaled appropriately for your level but be dungeon- or raid-boss complexity. Make them scary and punishing but beatable, and not just by getting your numbers higher than theirs. If they become genuine encounters, rather than random punishment, they become more interesting, even if you still die to them a lot. You know you had a chance. With the above system in place, those zone sweepers could simply learn faster than the others, and be more inclined to surprise you. If you want to get fancy about it, you could have them “pass their knowledge” to other mobs, updating them as they path nearby and allowing you to target them to prevent the entire area from evolving. For a player farming a space, it adds a layer of meta-gameplay, and if the space is crowded, it would periodically get thinned out by a smart, predatory zone sweeper, keeping things fresh and a little bit scary.
I talk a lot about the “world being scary” as a direction for MMOs. I think there are a couple things contributing to the current state of the genre. PvP is, in theory, a continually fresh, continually challenging gameplay feature that takes very little work to maintain and keeps players interested. Making a game more “hardcore” tends to gravitate towards adding more PvP. I think that’s a mindset that doesn’t really take into account how the MMO audience has evolved since WoW. PvP players were already a minority in MMOs before WoW, and things like UO’s Trammel should have made it clear that players want compelling PvE. WoW has made PvP players even more of a minority, yet there’s this strange, lingering mentality that PvP is a magic button for players who want a compelling, fresh challenge. I also think there’s a sense of worry that if the PvE game is too difficult, people will leave. I can hear the Creative Directors scoffing now: “If you make a game with hard, scary PvE all over the place, you’ll have players leave before the end of the first month!” To that I say: it was going to happen anyway; that’s a risk I think is worth exploring.
There’s space, I think, for an MMO that breaks from the usual approaches and tries something radically different for the genre. The success of Destiny should speak volumes to that– despite all of its issues, which would have absolutely crippled a more “standard” MMO out of the gate, it still was fresh enough and interesting enough to bring a wide group of players in and stay interesting long enough for the team to work through and fix/stabilize things, and what I know of The Taken King is that it’s great. In a similar vein, Guild Wars 2 broke heavily from the usual MMO mold, and while some of the things it tried didn’t work terribly well, it still managed to be different enough and compelling enough to keep players while they made changes and stabilized themselves, where other studios would have laid off half their staff.
I’d like to see more “different”. I want to see MMOs launch that I think are neat but don’t want to play, the way I do with shooters and action games and other genres– it means that the genre is healthy and continually evolving.